Report: Nearly half of all U.S. colleges and universities restrict speech

( Are you planning to send your youngster off to college in the near future? Chances are good they’ll have to check their First Amendment rights at the door, Campus Reform reports.

That’s because, according to a newly released annual report, 2016 edition of “Spotlight on Speech Codes,” [PDF] published annually since 2009, nearly half of all campuses restrict speech in some way, though this year’s findings note that some progress was made over the past year.

The report, by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, gave a “red light” label – which denotes at least one substantial speech restriction – to 49.3 percent of the 440 institutions of higher learning that it surveyed. That is a little better than last year, when 55 percent of schools got a failing grade, Campus Reform noted.

“Despite the critical importance of free speech on campus, too many universities—in policy and in practice—censor and punish students’ and faculty members’ speech and expressive activity,” says an executive summary of the report. “One way that universities do this is through the use of speech codes—policies prohibiting speech that, outside the bounds of campus, would be protected by the First Amendment.”

FIRE said this year’s survey marked the first time in its history that the percentage of schools receiving red light labels fell below 50 percent.

The report also noted an “unprecedented” level of federal meddling on campus, and not necessarily in a good way.

“While speech codes declined overall, FIRE did see a continued increase in restrictive harassment policies in response to the federal government’s unprecedented intervention into universities’ handling of sexual harassment claims,” it said.

Because of that, “between September 2014 and September 2015, FIRE downgraded 10 universities from a ‘yellow light’ rating to a red light rating for adopting overly restrictive definitions of sexual harassment,” said the report.

“Moreover, despite the dramatic reduction in speech codes over the past eight years, FIRE continues to find an unacceptable number of universities punishing students and faculty members for constitutionally protected speech and expression,” it added.

“It is essential that students, alumni, faculty, and free speech advocates remain vigilant not only about campus speech codes, but also about the way universities may—even in the absence of a written policy—silence or punish protected speech.”

One successful strategy to combat a university’s strict speech policy, FIRE noted, is through litigation.

“At public universities, which are bound by the First Amendment, litigation continues to be another highly successful way to eliminate speech codes,” it said.

To date, the group said it has file 10 First Amendment lawsuits, three of which are ongoing.

The group said that state legislatures are also helping to combat university speech police.

“In July 2015, Missouri enacted the Campus Free Expression Act (CAFE Act), which prohibits Missouri’s public colleges and universities from limiting students’ expressive activities to small or out-of- the-way ‘free speech zones,’” the report said, adding that “Virginia also enacted a similar law in 2014.”

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See also:

Campus Reform

FIRE report




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